I wrote this post several weeks ago, and was saving it because I wanted to do a blog series on writing, but I’m feeling prickly today, the sink is full of dishes, I’m up to my eyeballs in work—and while none of those things have anything to do with writing queries, if I don’t post this now, I probably never will. So…um, there.
As stated previously, when I first began submitting Tiger Eye, every agent and publisher I queried rejected me. I sold the book only when I finally submitted the first three chapters to the slush piles. So when I talk about writing query letters, remember that I’m somewhat of a failure at them.
That said, I started thinking about them again after visiting Dear Author the other day and taking a peek at the anonymous query letter of the week. Queries are tough business. You’re trying to sell yourself in three or four paragraphs—the shorter, the better—and if you aren’t concise, clear, and exciting, your chances at getting a request for a partial won’t be great.
But for those curious, this is what a query letter looks that failed on 95% of submissions:
While vacationing in China, Dela Reese � an artisan blacksmith with a psychic affinity for metal � discovers two plots to kill her, one of which is connected to the mysterious appearance of an immortal shape-shifter, cursed to spend eternity as a slave.
Bound to Dela for the remainder of her life, the shape-shifter � Hari, of the tiger clan � expects the same depraved abuse he has suffered under the rule of previous masters. Much to Hari�s shock, Dela treats him as an equal, a friend � and his distrust and scorn soon softens into confusion � as well as a tender affection that both frightens and awes him.
Pursued across two continents, both Dela and Hari must face the enemies � new and old � who threaten to destroy not only their lives, but their blossoming love. A love that will be the key to saving them both.
Tiger Eye is approximately 105,000 words in length, and is a suspenseful paranormal romance. I envision it to be the first in a series, each subsequent book focusing on characters introduced in Tiger Eye.
If the premise of Tiger Eye appeals to you, I would be happy to send the complete manuscript. Thank you very much for your time.
Obviously, it’s not a great letter. I post it only so you can learn from my mistakes. And don’t ask me to rewrite it into what could be a winning query, because I’m still not certain what that is, and it would probably still stink.
However, here are some things I have learned over the past couple years, just from listening to others, and attempting to compose mini-mini-outlines before I start writing each book (which sometimes helps, but most often is just a good way to feel busy when all you’re doing is procrastinating). Remember, I have a bad track record. These are just suggestions that may, or may not, help you.
So, here we are:
THE NOT-SO-HELPFUL AND PROBABLY VERY BAD GUIDE TO WRITING QUERY LETTERS
At heart, you should think of a query letter as a mini-proposal. Very mini. Thimble-sized. Packs-a-punch size. You need to hook the attention of the editor or agent, and reel them in with the inexorable, irresistible, force of your idea.
The hook begins with your introduction, a small paragraph, even just one line at the beginning that gets to the heart of what your book is about. Your big idea. Your mystery, your concept that makes this story different from every other one out there. And if you don’t know what that is, you probably ought to go back and reexamine some things. The key is to hone and persevere. March on, writer.
Next up, the hero and heroine, and their role within your big idea. Who are they, what do they have to lose, and who wants to use them? Guideline questions, of course, but those usually rest at the heart of any plot. Be specific, take care to look for logical inconsistencies in your statements. Make it short. If a detail about the character isn’t perfectly relevant to the plot, consider leaving it out. If you can wrangle a brief conclusion into this, great. Try to tie up all the elements—characters, big idea—in a final statement that leaves the editor or agent desperate for more.
I know, I know…I make these broad statements like, “Shoot for the moon! Make them desperate!” without actually showing you how. Problem is, every story is different. Every book has a unique hook, and trying to explain how to make your story sound irresistible is a totally individual process—and there are many different approaches. My letter was short, but something a bit longer isn’t out of bounds. You could write a query letter that acts more as a best-bits summary of your book, a mini-synopsis (which is, perhaps, what I should have done). You could have one that starts with your desire to seek representation, and then bleeds into the hook—or maybe you met this editor or agent at a conference and lead off that way. There’s no good answer.
Just good writing, and really good organization.
Remember the importance of being straightforward when writing a query. Do not be coy. Coy is annoying. Be sincere. Be smart. Focus only on the most compelling elements of your book. Also, be sure to tell a little about how your story fits into the market. Does this book fall into the same vein as some other author who is doing well? Editors and agents need to be able to sell your book, and part of the hook and handle is giving them something to sink their teeth into when they think about the money. Writing might be an art, but it’s also a business. Never forget that.
Talk about yourself, too. Just a little. The most relevant and interesting bits. Don’t go overboard. At least, that’s what I hear.
And last, but not least, BE POLITE. BE HUMBLE. BE PROFESSIONAL. Check your ego at the door, because if there was ever a time to ditch the narcissism, this is it. Statements like “THIS IS THE BEST THING YOU’LL EVER READ” do not belong in a query letter. Even if you are convinced beyond all reason that it’s true. Rein it in, buster.
Finally, DO thank the editor and agent for their time. It is precious.
So, that’s it. Not much, I know, and not a lot of specifics. Because, like I said, I’m terrible at these things (as in, writing queries and writing about them). Hopefully, though, the above will help generate some ideas and a direction to move in. Remember, too, you can still get published without a great query letter…but it really helps to have one.
Here are some useful links:
YOUR NOVEL PROPOSAL: FROM CREATION TO CONTRACT by Marshall J. Cook
Go forth, my peeps! Write!